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The Significance of the Red Cap

By Siahyonkron Jglay Kpa-kay Nyanseor      red-african-hat

 

 

“Home, Sweet Home” is a story about a young man who had traveled from Liberia to America for school and became homesick. He is a “country boy” raised by Honorable George Andrew Jackson Washington and his lovely wife, Mrs. Martha Ann Jefferson-Washington, a Congor family living on Snapper Hill in Monrovia—near the capitol where plenty “Big, Big Shots” live.

This young man belongs to the Kpelle ethnic group in Bong County, Central Liberia. His name is Flomo Kollie Yarkpawolo, and he is the first child of Noko Kollie Zaza Yarkpawolo and Ma Zoe, his head wife. The name Noko is derivative of the acronym “NCO” (Non Commissioned Officer). Most Liberian soldiers have been called “Nokos”. Flomo’s father served as a non-commissioned officer in the Liberian Frontier Force (LFF), precursor of the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) then referred to as the military. 

During a trip to the interior on important Government business, Honorable George A. J. Washington ran into several boys playing football (*gangar ball). He took personal interest in the leadership skills of one of the boys exhibited among his playmates. He summoned the Constable (Messenger) and instructed him to go find where the lad lives; to have him and his parents to come to the guesthouse where he was lodging. The Constable took off without delay to locate the compound and hut Flomo and his parents reside. After asking several persons, he finally located Flomo’s parents’ home. 

The LFF was organized by the British Military, and therefore wore a colonial style British Military uniform: knee-high khaki pants and shirt, with a red cap. In those days, the villagers were afraid of Constables, they are referred to in Bassa (Language) as “Fle BoBo” (Red Cap).  They got the name because of the bad

experiences they encountered during the collection of “Hut and Head Taxes.” The LFF was infamous for using brute force in executing their duties. 

Liberian Frontier Force (LFF)

The Liberian Frontier Force (Army) was the most hated group due to their inhumane practices; for example, the abuse and exploitation of the native population – their own people. These notorious practices preceded them! Therefore, whenever these Constables arrived in the village, the villagers become scared, and many of them would run off into the bush or forest to hide. However, like the saying goes, “In every bunch of rotten oranges, there are some good ones.” It suffices to say, there were some LFF soldiers that had compassion and sympathy for the plight of the people – to the point of marrying some of the women and having children by them. In many instances, these marriages improved relationship between the LFF and the people.

 

On the day the Constable who was sent to find Flomo’s parents found where the lad parents lived; he met a man whom he greeted and proceeded to explain the purpose of his visit. He said to the older gentleman: “I was sent here by the big kwii man from Monrovia; he has interest in taking Flomo to the big city to make him kwii (civilized)”. The older gentleman responded saying: “I am the father of Flomo Kollie Yarkpawolo; he is my son.” Flomo is the only son of Noko Yarkpawolo and Ma Zoe.  Ma Zoe is the Head Zoe of the Sande Society School, and Chief Zoe of Kpelle country. Upon hearing the good news, those that were on their farms and those that were hiding among the bushes came out of hiding to join the rejoicing villagers. Some of them made remarks like, “We knew when Flomo was born, and from the way he cried and conducted himself at the age of two that he was going to become a big Kwii and book man. Therefore, we are not surprised that he was selected from among the 20 or so boys that were playing gangar ball (soccer) that day.”

 

However, not all the villagers celebrated Flomo’s selection!  Some of them were jealous from the point of view that Flomo’s selection was influenced by his parents’ positions in the community. On the appointed day, Noko Yarkpawolo, his five wives, their children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, family members, and some of the villagers accompanied Flomo to meet with Honorable Washington.

When they arrived at the guesthouse, Honorable Washington was surprised to see the large crowd. He wondered whether he had violated a traditional law that he may not be aware of.  In this regard, the Constable explained that he did not violate any traditional law or norm, instead, it was the normal process to greet government official. After that Honorable Washington welcomed his guests with a “Yourrrr, Yourr, Yourrrr, Yourr!” the festivities began. Arrangements were concluded

regarding Flomo relocating to live with Honorable Washington and his family in Monrovia.

At first, Flomo did not want to leave his mother to go to a strange and faraway place called Dukor (Monrovia). However, after much convincing that Monrovia is a wonderful place to live, he agreed to leave and live with Honorable Washington in Dukor.

Flomo’s father, Noko Yarkpawolo, who is also known as Zaza, had been forced at a very young age by Chief Zamgba to join the LFF because he wanted to help bring about a peaceful resolution between the Liberian Government and the native population. Zaza on the other hand agreed for one reason – to avoid his tribe (Kpelle) from being targeted as an enemy of the Government. Also, this is the reason, Chief Zamgba ordered young Kpelle boys to join the army. Consequently, many of the young boys did not fulfill their traditional responsibility such as, attending the Poro School. This became a serious cultural violation in Kpelle Country. As far as Chief Zamgba was concerned, such traditional practices should be stopped to satisfy the Kwii people. 

 

In exchange of Chief Zamgba’s assistance, Government officials, especially the District Commissioner and the Superintendent granted them special privileges during Hut and Head tax collection season. With this relationship, an alliance was formed between the Government and the Kpelle people. The Kpelle assisted the Government in fighting the Dei Gola, Kru (Klao), Grebo and the Bassa tribes that revolted against the Government over the seizure of their lands, and the paying of taxes without representation, which caused the native people to resist the authorities of Liberian Government.

Among the Liberian tribes, the Kpelle people are known to be a peaceful group. During the disputes the Liberian Government had with other tribal groups, the Kpelles were not involved. Due to the Kpelle people’s peaceful nature, many Liberians considered them too submissive and easily taken advantage of. There are popular stereotypes (jokes) about the Kpelle people that exist today: “You dressed like a Kpelle man.” or “You cut your hair like a Kpelle man.”

 

Chief Zamgba

Zamgba was a Kpelle chief who was very wicked to his own people. Chief Zamgba became a very powerful dictator. With the support of the Government, he exercised brute power over his people. There was a popular song regarding his behavior towards his people. The song was made popular by the “Liberian Santa

Claus” during the holiday season (Christmas and New Year). The chorus of the song goes like this: “Zamgba die, Kpelle people put on shoes; Zamgba die, Kpelle people put on shoes.” Legend has it that because he wore shoes, he did not allow his people to do the same. 

 

On the other hand, Chief Zamgba’s sister tribe, the Lorma from Lofa country had a chief called Buzzy. Chief Buzzy had joined with the Liberian Government to put down the rebellion and resistance from the coastal tribes. He too, was powerful and dictatorial. These two chiefs joined forces with the Government to fight the natives, the Klaos (Krus), Grebos and Bassas along the Atlantic Coast.

In 1926, another palaver was introduced by the Government that involved the hinterland tribes; particularly the Kpelles and the Lormas. This palaver caused a serious disruption among these people. During this year, Industrialist Harvey Firestone of Ohio, USA, established the Firestone Plantation in Liberia. The Firestone Plantation needed workers, so Chief Zamgba and Chief Buzzy were identified by the Government as the source that could be used to provide the needed laborers to plant and tap the rubber trees.  Both Chiefs and the LFF got involved in what is known in Liberian history as “compulsory voluntary recruitment practice.” The Kpelles and Lormas were forcibly recruited, sometimes at gunpoint and with threats to work on Firestone Plantation. This heartless procedure of recruiting the Liberian people to work on the Firestone Plantation provided no meaningful compensation to the people who left their own farms’ work unattended to. They were made to abandon their livelihood – their farms, to work like slaves for below minimum wages; living under poor and unacceptable working conditions.   

 

Due to the brute power that Chief Buzzy exercised over his people, the Government authorities inaccurately referred to the Lorma tribe as “Buzzy people”. In fact an area in Monrovia is named as “Buzzy Quarter” in honor of Chief Buzzy. This area is located at the intersection of Camp Johnson Road, not far from Bassa Community and Capitol Hill. Today, the Lorma people resent being called Buzzy people; a vivid reminder of Chief Buzzy’s mistreatment of them.

 

The truth about the Lormas and Kpelles is that they are a peaceful people, and not STUPID. Their rational for joining the LFF was not to bring peace between the natives who rebelled against the Liberian authorities; instead, it was to escape the brutality rained upon them and their women by the LFF during Hut and Head Tax collection. They felt by joining the LFF they could escape the abuse and exercise similar power and authority just like Chief Zamgba, Chief Buzzy and the Liberian

Government officials. This was the justification provided for their action. There is a phrase associated with them that goes like this: “Gon-mana  gave me gun, non gave me Englay; my Ma go die, are na go cry; my Pa go die, are na go cry, but Gon-mana takekey the gun, are go cry.”

 

This belief led Flomo’s father Kollie and others to join the LFF (army). So, when Honorable Washington asked to take Flomo to Monrovia to live with him and his family; it was his dream comes true. Without any hesitating, Noko Kollie, his family, the entire village gladly supported Flomo to go to Monrovia to live with Honorable Washington and his family.

 

For the villagers it was a win-win situation. They believed if Flomo goes to Monrovia, he will learn book, become Kwii, and would represent their interests. But little that they knew; Flomo would grow up to despise everything about the Kpelle culture and tradition.

When Flomo arrived in Monrovia, the first thing the Washingtons did was have him join the First Baptist Methodist Episcopal Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ (FBMECLJC). Having joined the church, Flomo was baptized, and acquired new Christian Civilized names; along with the behavior and mannerism. He became so proud of being called, Moses Jacob Washington until he did not want to be reminded of his Kpelle culture. He was ashamed of being Kpelle. With his new names, he felt the ways of the people in the village were not only hedonistic, but primitive. 

Flomo, now Moses Jacob, was forbidden to speak his Kpelle language in the home of the Washingtons. To them, Kpelle was a primitive language spoken by uncivilized people as opposed to the Queen’s language, English. It was in this environment that Moses Jacob Washington, I — was raised. He resented everything about his Kpelle background. He made fun of, and laughed at those who spoke tribal languages. He was ashamed of his parents, too. Whenever they came to visit from up country (hinterland), Moses Jacob would hide or run from them. He did not want to be identified with them, especially his mother because she wore buba and lappa, instead of skirt, blouse, or dress.

This Kpelle lad from Korkoyah – Moses Jacob, had a thoroughly makeover in Monrovia to the point of refusing to speak Kpelle whenever he encountered old acquaintances or family members. He referred to the Kpelle Language as that “Country Thing”. In addition, he referred to indigenous women that dressed in lappa attire, including his own mother as Lappalonia; a way of saying they are not

“civilized”. He even refused to wear the indigenous round-neck Vai Shirt on account of the same reason. He wore Western attire – coat and tie almost everywhere he went to show he was a civilized person. To a larger extent, he is not to be blamed. The leaders of the country did not value African culture; they preferred everything Western (European or American) as opposed to African. The official dress was and is still Western attire. Children were not excluded! At the annual July 26 Dance (Children Dance as it was referred to) sponsored by the Government; children were required to wear Western attire – if not; they were not allowed to enter the dance hall. This was the society Flomo now Moses Jacob was socialized in.

African Music & Dance

To add insult to injury, Moses Jacob hated African music and dance. This was the 1960s! In an African country like Liberia, there was one hour dedicated for African music. It was from 12 Noon to 1:00pm on the Government radio station; Liberia Broad Casting Station (ELBC). The host of “The African Music Hour” was J. Yanqui Korluba Zuba. In fact, Moses Jacob got annoyed and turned to ELWA (Eternal Love Winning Africa) whenever he heard African music on the radio. He referred to African music and dance as hedonistic, offensive; at best, an uncivilized music and dance. 

On the other hand, while attending college in the United States of America, Moses Jacob had to explain to white and African Americans as well as African students from Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa why all of his were English/European names. This experience embarrassed him so much that he wished he still carried his authentic African names: Flomo Kollie Yarkpawolo, and could speak Kpelle, his native language. The embarrassment he encountered especially with African-Americans and African students made him ashamed and uncomfortable.

One day while reminiscing, Moses Jacob burst into the song young children used to sing at home, which goes like: “O Sweet Home, O yes! When shall I see my native land; I shall never forget my home; O sweet home…”   The song brought back favorable memories when he and friends used to play in the town square in Korkoyah. This experience and the embarrassment he felt from the conversations he had with African-Americans and African students created in him a state of confession to the point of becoming truly homesick; especially, the village in the Kpelle country from which his parents came from. In addition, he reminisced about the roosters that served as alarm clock which woke up the villagers every morning

to begin their daily activities; and the Pepper Birds and Owls that competed with each other to serenade the villagers with their morning lullabies.

The month before Moses Jacob graduated from college, he got a letter from the Dean’s office requesting how he would like his names to appear on his diploma. Without hesitation, Moses Jacob rushed to the Dean’s office; met with the lady in charge, submitted to her the names he preferred to appear on his diploma. It reads: Flomo Kollie Yarkpawolo. He then proceeded to explain to her his reason for the change of names. He began: “You see, I am the son of a Kpelle man named Noko Kollie Zaza Yarkpawolo of the LFF, Liberian Frontier Force and a Kpelle woman named Ma Zoe, the Chief Zoe of the entire Kpelle country. My mother is in charge of the Sande girls’ school in the Kpelle Chiefdom in the Republic of Liberia. I am a proud country, native Kpelle man. This is reason I want my country, native names: Flomo Kollie Yarkpawolo to appear on my diploma.” 

Below is a Poem I wrote on July 26, 1995 that best described Flomo’s peculiar dilemma. 

©1995 Home, Sweet Home

I

There was once a land called home And sweet land of liberty A land in which everybody was referred to as “My Good Friend,” and men referred to as “Jack” or even “Joe Blow” A land for which we developed A special handshake A handshake that is referred to as The “Liberian Handshake” This handshake, My Good Friend Is like no other in the whole wide world.

 

II

But something went wrong, somewhere With this sweet home of ours For it to have become so bitter To the point where we could not Honestly talk about it

Perhaps, we were too afraid Or took too much for granted.

III

Because when things were going wrong We said they were not our business So we went about minding our business Advising our children To leave the “people’s Thing Alone” So, what got sweet in Billy Goat’s mouth Started to run its belly.

IV

Our sweet home began to fall apart And everybody else was going About their own business Hoping that somebody will fix it for us So, the home that was once sweet Became too bitter to talk about.

V

Now, there is no more Good Friend Everyone has become a suspect The only free persons are The sidewalk Preachers And people we called Craky They are the only people in town With the nerve to speak the truth Yet, nobody listens Because they are still considered Craky and Crazy people.

VI

Therefore, our home, sweet home Has become too bitter to talk about Everyone is too busy minding their business And leaving the “People’s Thing Alone” So, the land that was sweet Has become too bitter to talk about

Everyone, including Country and Congo people Have ended up in the same boat.

Note: *The Red Cap was introduced by the British Colonial Authorities in Africa. The Igbo tribe of Nigeria adopted it as a symbol of authority. The Red Cap is worn by the Eze (king) or Igwe. However, in Liberia the Red Cap was worn by the Liberian Frontier Force (LFF) and Constables also organized by the British. It was a sign of power and authority. The LFF served as the military for the Liberian Government; they too wore the Red Cap as part of their uniform. They wore it to collect hut and head taxes from the natives that resided in the interior, then referred to as the hinterland. 

Gangar ball: is a ball made out of the debris from the rubber trees’ latex.

“Leave the People’s Thing”, is a phrase used in Liberia in making reference to politics or the discussion that involved “vexed or pregnant issues”. Parents usually advised their children not to get involve in “The People’s Thing.” they do so to keep their children from getting in trouble with Liberian government authorities. 

  Siahyonkron Jglay Kpa-kay Nyanseor, Sr. is a life-long activist (*troublemaker) in researching the true history of Africa, the people of African origin in the Diaspora. He had dedicated his teaching of African culture; spent over 45 years advocating for human, civil and constitutional rights of all people, especially, the Liberian masses. He is a Griot, poet, journalist and an ordained Minister of the Gospel. Mr. Nyanseor is the Chairman of the Liberian Democratic Future (LDF), publisher of theperspective.org online newsmagazine established June 1996.  In 2012, he Co-authored Djogbachiachuwa: The Liberian Literature Anthology; his current book of poems: TIPOSAH: Message from the Palava Hut is on the market. He can be reached at: siah1947@gmail.com

 

   The Origin of the Story

This story was revealed to me in a dream on Thursday, September 12, 2013 at about 7:35 am. As a habit, I always sleep with a pen and pad on table lamp beside my bed. When I woke up on this day from the dream, I remembered every single detail of it—much like a dictation of the following story:  “Home, Sweet Home”. 

 

 

*Activist/Advocate for social justice in Liberia is referred to by the Government and the ruling elites as a ‘Troublemaker.’ 

 

NOTE: I will highly appreciate if anyone out there can provide me with the indigenous names that the Lorma and Kpelle tribes called the ‘Traditional Gown’ worn by Town and Paramount Chiefs

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